John Hunt Morgan Rides Again
Hop on your horse and ride with us, on the 140th anniversary, as we recount the Civil War raids by Confederate general and Lexington native John Hunt Morgan and his men
“The Rebels are coming!”
On horseback—traveling at blistering speeds toward towns and farms—were young men in their prime: fathers, brothers, childhood friends, commanded by John Hunt Morgan. The Lexington businessman, former fire company captain, and former captain of the Lexington Rifles company—Morgan, the Confederate general who led five independent raids in and through the heart of Kentucky.
Imagine 2,000 to 4,000 Confederates moving across the Kentucky countryside near your home. Imagine, as a cavalryman in one of eight Kentucky regiments, traveling more than 900 miles in 24 days as happened during The Great Raid. Imagine being in the Home Guard and trying to outwit these skilled horsemen and soldiers.
On July 4, 1863, Araminta Hiestand Chandler was alone with her children on the outskirts of Campbellsville as the raiders came riding through her fields. Her husband, noted Union Democrat Joseph H. Chandler, was in town about to speak on the courthouse lawn. She pointed the shotgun out the back door and told the raiders not to come inside, that she was not going to cook for them. They obliged, but then of course went on to other houses.
Morgan and his men generally sought out pro-Southern homes and preferred the company of Southern sympathizers, but families of both persuasions were called into the temporary service of the Confederates. Prize horses were confiscated and families were forced to provide food for Morgan’s men and their horses. Raiders swarmed through Bardstown, Burkesville, Columbia, Elizabethtown, Glasgow, New Haven, Norris Branch, Tompkinsville, and many others. Parts of Augusta, Cynthiana, and Lebanon were burned as buildings caught fire during skirmishes. Eventually forts were built in Glasgow, Shepherdsville, and Bowling Green to protect the L&N Railroad from Morgan’s raids.
Good and bad memories were left behind, depending on if your family sided with the Union or the Confederacy. And imagine the contradictions in towns and households: some families had sons who fought on each side.
Morgan’s major raids have acquired nicknames over the years: The First Kentucky Raid (July 1862), The Christmas Raid (1862-1863), The Great Raid (June and July 1863), and The Last Kentucky Raid (June 1864). They created memories not only for the raiders, but for the victims of the raids and those who fought to stop them.
Ironically, from the start, the state of Kentucky had not advocated war. On May 20, 1861—about five weeks after the assault on Fort Sumter that began the American Civil War—Kentucky declared its neutrality. But on September 18, the Kentucky General Assembly voted for the state to align with the Union.
Two days after Kentucky’s alignment with the Union, John Hunt Morgan made clear his intended allegiance by loading Kentucky militia rifles onto two hay wagons, substituting bricks in the rifle crates to be shipped to Frankfort. When Morgan’s “first act of war” was discovered, creditors closed in and the wool factory he owned was closed. Angry that the government was ruining his way of life, Morgan led the Lexington Rifles and about 200 Confederate recruits into Confederate lines near Bowling Green. But mundane life in camp quickly lost its appeal, and without authorization Morgan started leading 10 to 20 volunteers into Union territory at night, ambushing sentries and collecting intelligence about the enemy.
This impromptu style of soldiering—guerrilla warfare or “small war”—appealed to Morgan, and when he finally mustered into the Confederate Army and began moving up in rank, his decisions to use raids and hit-and-run tactics escalated. The raids served several purposes: disrupting communications by destroying telegraph lines, diverting Union troops from the fighting front to guard communication and supply lines, stymieing Union decision-making, diverting attention from the main Confederate troops, and striking fear in the Union.
Small but terrible warfare
In January 1862, north of Campbellsville, a camp squad of Union telegraphers were busy storing equipment and food in the two-door log meeting house that was the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Morgan, with nine men and a guide—disguised as Union soldiers—pounced upon the Union soldiers and captured the church and equipment.
Local miller John Feather reportedly made a remark to the Union-dressed Confederates that burning was too good for John Morgan and, according to family stories, the Rebels replied, “Well, that’s what we’ll do to you.”
Morgan set fire to the church as Morgan later reported to his superiors, but Feather, who said he was placed in the church to be burned, escaped, and hid out in the woods for three days. His wife, Mary, who thought he had perished in the fire, fainted when she saw him three days later. The telegraph crew was taken by Morgan and his men to Tennessee and later released.
In the spring of 1862, Morgan and 150 men marched, under the cover of darkness, along bridle paths toward Bowling Green and then on to Cave City. At the L&N station in Cave City, they burned the locomotive, four passenger cars, and 45 freight cars. It scarred the landscape, but also foreshadowed what would become painfully true in the next couple of years: the Civil War was not going to be fought only in the seceding states.
One of Morgan’s trademarks was disguising as a Union soldier. Another was using the telegraph for intelligence-gathering—a tactic that was militarily ahead of its time and later called the most striking innovation in the Civil War. Morgan intercepted enemy messages, transmitted confusing and deceptive messages, and taunted the Union as his telegraph operator, George “Lightning” Ellsworth, tapped into Union military lines.
Union leaders thought Morgan and his men were headed to Louisville in June 1863 when the command skirted around the city through Springfield and into Brandenburg. Two steamboats ferried 2,200 men and 2,200 horses across the Ohio River at Brandenburg, taking 16 hours, while a detachment of the Indiana Home Guard fired at the raiders a few times with an old cannon. Finally, north of the Mason-Dixon line—and against the orders of his superiors not to leave Kentucky— Morgan and his men are credited with raiding numerous shops in Indiana and Ohio, before being captured near West Point in northern Ohio, the war’s northernmost penetration of the Confederacy. It is impossible to know how many Kentucky shops were raided, says historian James A. Ramage, as no written claims were made to the Commonwealth for reimbursement as happened in Indiana and Ohio.
“The psychological effect (of enjoying action and great danger) and Morgan’s revolutionary zeal made him one of the greatest guerrilla warriors in history,” points out Ramage, author of Rebel Raider, The Life of General John Hunt Morgan. “Total involvement made him totally fearless—free to act, feel, and think with great abandon and creativity.”
Morgan and the raiders were noted for their stamina and good manners, especially to women and children, and a few raiders married girls they met in the raid, like Samuel Joseph Campbell, who met Mary Jerusha Pike near Brandenburg during The Great Raid, and returned there after the war to court and marry her. In The Last Kentucky Raid, as the toll of the long war began to set in, the raiders plundered retail stores, scattered dry goods in the streets, and a few men, against Morgan’s orders, robbed citizens and banks of private deposits, such as the Mt. Sterling branch of the Farmer’s Bank of Kentucky, and divided the loot among themselves (which is against international law) instead of the funds going into the Confederate treasury.
Fear was pervasive when news spread of Morgan and his men approaching. Families hid precious mementos and horses. In addition to Morgan’s Raiders, guerrillas with no army command roamed the countryside.
Most people who know that their families were visited by Morgan’s Raiders have no idea which raid it was that brought the war to their ancestors’ doorsteps, says Betty Gorin-Smith, who is completing a book on Morgan’s raids and the six times he was in Taylor County. Details on the weather and landscape help her to pinpoint which raid an anecdote has come from.
Bill Penn of Midway grew up in Cynthiana, where Morgan’s men and Union forces battled in 1862 and 1864. Penn’s great-grandfather, Lewis Collins, helped to defend Cynthiana. As a farmer at Rutland, Collins was called up to serve in the Home Guard, as happened with men in many towns during this time. Family word of mouth says he volunteered his wagon.
A solemn message, though, lies beneath all the heroics that have become part of the Morgan legend, Penn points out when he talks to groups about the raids. “They should know this was war and while these people are glorified, they were trying to win a war. As colorful as it looks today, it was a lot of hardship, with the elements and disease...people were killed and maimed. It was real war.”
Consider the toll of just one battle, the Second Battle of Cynthiana in June 1864. Union: 48 killed, 171 wounded, 980 captured. Confederate: estimated 70 killed, 100 wounded, 300 captured. As far as how many civilians may have been killed as a result of Morgan’s raids, Ramage says “not very many.” The people killed during the raids were generally not bystanders but those who were actively trying to thwart the raiders.
The lost cause
Gypsie Lee Cosby Jones, the author of Reflections in the Wind/Reliving a Memorable Era in Northern Madison County, vividly remembers the story of her grandfather, Oliver Welch Cosby, and his three brothers riding off in September 1862 to enlist in the Confederate Army and all of them being assigned to the 11th Kentucky Cavalry under Morgan’s command. “The recruitment at Foxtown was extremely exciting with the regiment drilling to the rapid beat of a fife and drum beating out the tune of Dixie in the warm October sun,” Oliver Cosby told family members. One day, making popcorn in an old iron skillet, he remarked to 5-year-old Gypsie, “The sound of the popcorn popping was like the sound of the bullets.”
In July 1863, Oliver Cosby lost two brothers in the Battle of Tebbs Bend, the Union name (or Battle of Green River Bridge, the name Madison countians refer to it as). One brother died on the battlefield, and another died five days later from injuries. “It was devastating. My grandfather never got over it,” Jones says.
The Great Raid in 1863 ended when Morgan and some of his men were captured near West Point, Ohio, and imprisoned in the Ohio Penitentiary. Oliver Cosby, one of the 360 soldiers to escape from Ohio, was later captured in West Virginia and spent the rest of the war in the Union prison at Rock Island, Illinois.
Morgan found the long hours alone in a cell unbearable, and eventually he and the raiders tunneled out of the Ohio Penitentiary. They’ll never take me alive again, Morgan reportedly said to his wife, Mattie, when reunited with her. The words, as it turned out, were prophetic.
On the morning of September 4, 1864, in Greeneville, Tennessee, federal troops surrounded the house where Morgan and his officers had spent the night. An army captain, a clerk, and Morgan were escaping when ordered to halt, but unlike the other men, Morgan continued running and was shot in the back and died minutes later. The Confederate-deserter-turned-Union-private who shot Morgan didn’t know it was Morgan until captured Confederate Captain Henry B. Clay identified the body. Controversy has surrounded Morgan’s death for years, but Ramage’s well-researched version has continued to hold up to scrutiny.
The Civil War ended with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. On May 4, Morgan’s men were advised to return to their hometowns and were paid from $26 to $32 for their service, not much less than Union soldiers had been paid. “I have never seen a man who belonged to Morgan’s command who was not proud of his service,” said the late M.C. Saufley, one of Morgan’s men who later became Kentucky State Auditor.
But many soldiers, walking hundreds of miles to get home, went home to broken lives. Their farms were not tended and their families were left on their own, points out Lester V. Horwitz, author of The Longest Raid of the Civil War.
For many, life after the war was never the same. “Ladies wearing black silk mourning dresses and heavy veils wept during worship services at Tates Creek Church,” writes Jones in Reflections in the Wind, echoing what was happening in all corners of the Union and Confederacy. “Gentlemen’s heads were bowed low. Grief swept over the congregation and not even the consoling words of their beloved minister, S.L. Helm, could mend their broken hearts.”
Basil Duke, Morgan’s brother-in-law and second in command, started the Morgan’s Men Association in 1868 on the day when Morgan’s body was brought back from Tennessee and re-interred in Lexington. Many raiders readily joined and enjoyed the camaraderie of annual reunions, but others preferred to forget the war and not talk about it. The last surviving member died in 1953.
In 1988, the Morgan’s Men Association was re-activated, this time the membership open to descendants of Morgan’s Raiders and persons interested in celebrating the pride and heritage of this part of Civil War history. Today the group has 325 members, 75 percent whose ancestors rode with Morgan. This year, its reunion will be held September 3-4 at the place where, 140 years ago, Morgan was killed in Greeneville, Tennessee.
For some families, the stories of ancestors on the raid are just starting to be told as third- and fourth-generation descendants have come forward with family stories, photographs, and letters to share with historical authors, like Horwitz who is now writing a second book, After the Raid. “Descendants are proud of their history and ancestor, even though the South was defeated,” Horwitz says.
“Morgan’s men believed in something that they risked their lives for,” points out Sam R. Flora, secretary of the Morgan’s Men Association, whose great-great-grandfather, John L. Flora, served in Confederate Jeb Stuart’s 15th Virginia Cavalry. “It was a heritage of courage, dedication, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and love of country, as they saw it. ...The Civil War was a great tragedy—a tragic event that the country could not solve its social, economic, and political differences without the fighting and bloodshed.”
Kentucky Living wishes to thank Dr. James Ramage, whose research on Morgan’s raids was a primary source for this article.
THE LEGACY OF JOHN HUNT MORGAN
Southern gentleman. Thunderbolt of the Confederacy. Confederate hero. Scoundrel. Horse thief. Terrorist. John Hunt Morgan has been called all of these things. And often given credit for deeds he didn’t even do. Like burning the L&N railroad trestle at Shepherdsville or many of the 22 Kentucky courthouses destroyed during the war, when in fact Morgan and his men burned one courthouse in a battle, the one in Lebanon. But such is Morgan’s legacy. A tapestry of confirmed and unconfirmed claims, and also many stories, are likely tainted by either love or hatred for him and what he stood for.
The Morgan family, prominent in Lexington circles, called John Hunt Morgan “Brother Johnny.” The eldest of 12 children, he was a kind-hearted man and didn’t hate people, points out Regents Professor of History Dr. James Ramage, Northern Kentucky University.
“Morgan is a role model for loyalty,” says Lester V. Horwitz, author of The Longest Raid of the Civil War. He derived no pleasure in killing.
Soldiers chose to ride with Morgan, who had established a reputation for gallantry, daring, and loyalty to his men. Basil Duke noted an irresistible quality about Morgan when in action, especially in battle: “A quality even higher than courage.”
Differences of opinion
Morgan is loved and hated in Kentucky. It depends on who you talk with. For many, the interest in him lies in the fact that Morgan brought the Civil War to their town when major battles were being fought far away. Morgan received substantial press coverage during the Civil War, and over time, especially with his presence in Kentucky and his death during the war, Morgan has achieved an almost mythical popularity in Kentucky that shows no sign of abating. “The public conception and adoration are much greater than his deeds at the time,” believes Joseph E. Brent, who worked with the Morgan Trail Committee.
An example of the irony of Morgan’s celebrity, points out Bill Penn, author of Rattling Spurs and Broad-brimmed Hats/ The Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County, Kentucky, is that Cynthiana’s concrete bridge built in the 1940s is dedicated to Morgan despite the fact that Morgan and his men destroyed 37 buildings in the town, nearly half of the town’s property.
Civil War raids are still having an impact on Kentucky towns, says Penn. In 1997, a project to highlight the Civil War in the Second Congressional District turned its focus to John Hunt Morgan. Campbellsville University, Congressman Ron Lewis, the Kentucky Department of Transportation, the West Kentucky Corporation, the Kentucky Heritage Council, and interested people in 15 counties partnered together to create the John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky Heritage Trail System with wayside interpretive markers, and a Web site and brochure to help anyone who wants to follow the trail. For a copy of the brochure, call West Kentucky Corporation at (270) 781-6858 or go online to www.10000trails.com.
MY FATHER RODE WITH JOHN HUNT MORGAN
Annie Laurie Barr’s father, Abram James “A.J.” Barr, rode with John Hunt Morgan in Company B of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry. As was the practice with Confederate soldiers, Barr brought along his own horse and gun when he enlisted at Mt. Sterling. Annie, who is now 97 years of age and lives in Paris, Kentucky, can’t tell you much about her father’s war experiences, but clearly remembers that he enjoyed attending Confederate veterans’ reunions. “I never heard him talk about the war to us or anybody.”
Barr, though, did talk about the war to his wife, Sarah Ellen Jones Barr, who was 32 years younger than him. The couple (Abram, age 50, and Sarah, age 18) eloped in October 1890 and had nine children thereafter. Barr, who owned a 500-acre farm in Nicholas County and lived in Carlisle, donated land for the Taylor’s Creek School. Education for his daughters was a priority.
The war stories that Annie knows have come from her mother. Barr had a horse shot out from under him, but he would not steal a horse to replace the dead horse, as Annie tells the story. A fellow soldier offered him his horse. Later, when Barr was paroled from the Confederate Army in Washington, Georgia, he walked back to Carlisle, still refusing to steal a horse along the way. Born in 1839, he spent his lifetime breeding and raising thoroughbred horses and cattle, and died in April 1926.
Someone once asked Barr if he killed anybody in the war. He reportedly answered that one time a bullet came toward him from behind a bush. He shot back into the bush, and no more shooting came from that bush. At night, the cavalrymen used their saddles as pillows, and in winter, snow that fell overnight became a warm blanket, Annie recalls her father saying.
Dorotha Ellen Colliver Thompson of Danville had two ancestors who rode with Morgan. Barr was her grandfather, but she also had a great-grandfather on her father’s side of the family, Confederate Captain Charles Mattis Wise in the 9th, who handled the supplies for Morgan.
Thompson once asked her Grandmother Sarah about why she, as an 18-year-old, married the older veteran. “Well, honey, you should have seen his matched bay mares and his patent-leather buggy” was the answer.
It was a close relationship, Thompson observed as a child, who sometimes lived with her grandparents. “They were prim and precise, and Grandmother called him Mr. Barr.”
MORE INFORMATION ON MORGAN'S RAIDS
For maps and more information on Morgan's raids, click here: Morgan's raids